In-Depth

How to Survive the Holidays Working in the Service Industry

Exterior of a pub window on a snowy day
Tending bar during the holidays can pose unique challenges, from scheduling conflicts to stressed-out customers. But it can also afford the opportunity to create real, meaningful experiences for your guests. (Photo: Garry Knight)

The holidays are a time to take a deep breath and reflect on love and life with family and friends. You slow down, smile more, find yourself giving back a little more too. For bartenders and those working in the service industry, the holidays can also mean longer shifts and a major disruption in the usual work-life-(kids) balance. It can be stressful and leave you feeling overwhelmed with the guilt of being unable to attend celebrations due to work.

But, for four industry veterans, the holidays have become their favorite time of year behind the bar. It took setting expectations with family, staying positive and creating their own holiday traditions both at home and at work to keep the spirit of the season alive.

Keli Rivers, bar manager of Whitechapel and Devil’s Acre in San Francisco

In addition to managing two popular bars in San Francisco, Rivers, a 26-year service industry veteran, also serves on the USBG council and works with Pernod Ricard. Even without the holidays in play, her schedule only affords her one day off every other week. Rivers says her regular bar shifts last about nine hours but during the holidays they linger well into the double digits. It’s a tough pace to keep and can be physically draining but Rivers has found ways to make the holidays fun for herself and her staff despite the heavy workload.

On scheduling for the holidays:

"I’ve never denied anyone (unreasonably so) the need to be with family during the holidays. My staff’s needs are important and I want them to be happy. I’ve rarely had someone be unreasonable about requesting time off. I do give schedule priority to those with children during the holidays but I don’t push it unless they ask."

On keeping her morale up:

"We are 'on' the minute we walk behind the bar, so the holidays can be mentally and physically draining. I make sure to take time for myself during a shift. I sit down to eat without anyone around. No computer, no paperwork. Eating a pre-shift meal is important. I also change my shoes and socks mid-shift. It’s a physical break and signals the halfway point."

On keeping staff morale up:

"We change up the music a lot. There’s definitely a bit of dancing behind the bar! We joke around more, too. I check in frequently on my staff during the holidays. I’ve sent people home because I could tell they were just done. That can be a real boost for morale. We avoid long closings during the holidays to encourage people to go home and discourage after-shift drinking. You need a lot of sleep after a long shift."

On staff celebrations:

"During the season, we do Secret Santa with the whole staff. You exchange gifts with someone you might not share a shift with and learn something about that person. It helps bond the staff and keeps spirits up. Like most of the industry, our holiday party happens after the holidays are over."

On family celebrations:

"I’ve been making Christmas dinner for my family since I was 16. If everyone is in the same country, that’s what I do. I’m fortunate to work for bars that are closed Christmas Day. That’s not always been the case. You learn to adjust. It’s part of being in the service industry. You find ways to celebrate around your shifts and create your own traditions. For instance, growing up in Europe, we always celebrated Saint Nicholas Day or on years I had to work Christmas, meals with my family might have been served prior to my shift. My family knows this is a crazy time of year for me, so we throw a big January celebration. It took time to help them understand my work life."

Advice:

"Let your family know before the holidays what they can expect from you and your schedule. Celebrate around your schedule to create your own traditions."

Kit Lewis, beverage manager at Alma Cocina in Atlanta

Lewis has been in the bar industry for 12 years, having spent the last six years with Fifth Group Restaurants. He’s worked his way up the ranks from bartender to beverage manager at Alma Cocina in the bustling tourist and conventioneer mecca of downtown Atlanta. Like Rivers, Lewis leads a busy life beyond the bar including designing cocktails for private and public events, coordinating the staff for the A3C hip hop festival and being a father of two young children. The holidays pose a particularly daunting challenge for Lewis navigating the long hours as dad, husband and bar manager. He says the key to managing the holidays behind the bar successfully comes down to positivity.

On scheduling for the holidays:

"Planning ahead is the key to attending holiday parties and figuring out what days to request off. You have to prioritize which events [outside of work] you want or need to attend and work out the schedule [with colleagues.]"

On keeping his morale up:

"It's pretty easy to get into the holiday spirit. Our restaurant is located in a spectacular building in downtown Atlanta. They have this amazing Christmas tree in the lobby that's several stories high with festive decorations. We are a pretty popular location for office Christmas parties. I embrace being at work. It's better to face the day with a positive mindset!"

On staff celebrations:

"We do a Secret Santa gift exchange the staff really gets into. It helps to keep a little holiday cheer. Also, a kick-ass family meal does wonders for morale during the holiday weeks."

On guests during the holidays:

"The fact that our guests (who are away from their own families during the holidays) chose to come into our restaurant and spend their time with us is really a great compliment. I'm very lucky that most of our guests are amazing. I love managing a busy restaurant in the middle of the city during the holidays."

On family celebrations:

"Having children makes hospitality jobs hard. Period. But, it can be a bit depressing during the holidays. I try to have a positive attitude and be present when we are all together. My bar is closed for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so I get to dedicate those days to my family. On New Year’s Eve, I call or FaceTime my wife around midnight so we can share the New Year together. Then, we hang out when I get home."

Advice:

"Being positive can really spread to the entire staff. Your coworkers tend to take their cues from each other."

Franky Marshall, beverage director at Le Boudoir in New York City

Having worked behind the bars of Clover Club, Dead Rabbit, Monkey Bar and Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Franky Marshall’s resume reads like a who’s who of New York City’s best cocktail joints. This, alongside her speaking engagements, cocktail competitions, world travels and being the beverage director of Le Boudoir in Brooklyn makes Marshall one of the most well-respected bartenders in the business. Did we mention she also speaks three languages? This thirst for knowledge coupled with her wanderlust leaves Marshall pretty exhausted by the end of the year but she always finds her center behind the bar; especially during the holidays.

On scheduling for the holidays:

"Planning and patience. I travel a lot during the year but generally I stay put around the holidays. I don't mind picking up extra shifts, if necessary, because I know I'll be trying to get coverage myself soon enough."

On staff celebrations:

"I worked Christmas Day last year at a bar in the city. Some of the staff made food. I made Jamaican sorrel which we served to guests. We were actually quite busy and it was fun being around other orphans."

On family celebrations:

"I don't really have any holiday family obligations. I do enjoy getting together with friends for holiday meals, but don't really mind working Christmas if I have to. My solo Christmas tradition is to wake up and have Champagne and sweet treats in bed, then fall back asleep."

On the expectations of New Year’s Eve:

"There are such high expectations on the guests’ part that there can be real pressure working that night. If they don't have the most amazing night of their lives, it's somehow your fault or the bar's fault. Unless I'm going to be making a very large amount of money, that's the one night I do like to have off."

Advice:

"I notice guests are more stressed out this time of year. Everyone is a little on edge and in need of relief. The holidays bring people's neuroses front and center. I try to be sensitive to that, and just smile and agree a lot."

Jackson Cannon, owner/bartender at The Hawthorne, bar director at Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston

If you’re not familiar with Cannon’s “Letter to a Young Bartender” from 2014’s Tales of the Cocktail, you should be. His honest, fatherly advice was so inspiring, the letter went viral within hours. Cannon may be the industry’s biggest cheerleader and possibly its greatest champion having built his career and beverage programs around the bar community and those it lives to serve. At no time are these facts more apparent than during the holidays when Boston residents both past and present congregate at Eastern Standard for Christmas dinner and later for drinks at The Hawthorne. Cannon wouldn’t have the holidays any other way.

On scheduling for the holidays:

"I encourage our people to write down the shifts they’ll volunteer to work. This usually begins in October. It helps us prioritize and organize. We talk to staff about scheduling around personal obligations, too, or getting their shopping done early. We have these cool pop-up shops we collaborate with in the bar for guests and staff to shop."

On keeping morale up:

"Sure, this time of year is hard on the industry but, it’s hard on everyone regardless of your profession. Most people are working right up to the holidays and even on the holiday itself. You have to prioritize your commitments more this time of year so as not to become overwhelmed. I find the service industry’s role more important than ever during the holidays. We are offering so much more than cocktails and a good time. We are offering comfort and a place to gather with loved ones."

On working the holidays:

"I love Christmas at Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne. I look forward to this day every year as do many of the staff. Some will stay to work Christmas and then fly home to their families the day after because it has become so special. We have a lot of repeat guests, regulars and residents who come in after being with family all day and it turns into something really special on Christmas night where staff and guests mingle."

On staff celebrations:

"The day begins with Christmas dinner at 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Eastern Standard. We make sure there’s a meal for the staff after closing and between the time The Hawthorne opens. Both sets of staff are well-fed and happy. There’s a lot of fellowship. The Hawthorne then serves as a place to unwind for both guests and staff. It’s a really cool time in the life of the bar. Then, we throw a big holiday party in January for the staff."

On family celebrations:

"Being the son of a journalist, I get that holidays sometimes are just another day. My dad often worked the night news desk when I was growing up — even on Christmas. My family and children are used to my schedule. Just as I encourage my staff to do, I work my schedule around family obligations I need to attend."

Advice:

"We aren’t the only people working the holidays. Think of the ambulance driver, the doctor, the fireman and the policeman. We live to serve a community just as they do. The holidays are a perfect time for our industry to really shine and provide true hospitality. I just don’t think of working the holidays as a negative because you can build traditions for your guests, staff and yourself around the bar."

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